Habitat for Inhumanity

Omar Nagati

A conversation with architect and urban designer Omar Nagati.

Bidoun: If you were going to try to redesign Tahrir Square to prevent a revolution from happening again, what would you do?

Omar Nagati: [Laughs] I would refuse, of course. But if you want to do something substantive — meaning subversive — one could divide it into small areas with fences. Now the army has planted it with grass, which is a not too subtle way to say, “Nobody go here!” Or you could put in a water fountain.

B: It seems that the people were using the planted parts for picnicking.

ON: Yeah. [Laughs]

B: It would be best just put a roof over all of Tahrir — no more aerial shots.

ON: I hadn’t thought of that! I don’t know — this is the first time this has happened here. We learned that paving stones are more useful repurposed; the fences, too, were used as barricades. But there are certain elements in finishing material that are definitely less conducive to revolution. For example, the sidewalks in downtown Cairo are incredibly slippery. They could be made slipperier. There are some things that you don’t think about that really prevent, or at least discourage, gathering. If you take the courthouse in Giza, it has grand steps leading up to it. It was designed as a prestigious symbol, as if you were ascending to justice. But what happened is people started using the steps to protest — they were perfect for this. So then on the courthouse steps suddenly planters appear, everywhere, with crappy flowers to make the steps inaccessible. But that didn’t work, so now they erected a huge fence, a cage around the whole facade! Brutal. These are examples of the state trying to prevent protest through architecture.

B: What has the revolution given architects? Since there is no money and no architects have jobs, is it that they can focus on more important things?

ON: That’s a good one! [Laughs] I mean, I’m not sure how useful I can be — I can speak more as a citizen than an architect. If I were to reflect on my earlier work before the revolution, I would have to be much more critical about it now, maybe.

B: Oh really?

ON: Yes. Of course architecture and urban management are really complicit with power, by definition. The paradigm for the past five years has been very limiting, almost suffocating. You can only get commissions from private owners, residential projects. So, you end up arguing about what kind of tiles to use for the bathroom, those kind of questions. Or, on a larger scale, you can get a commission from a developer for projects with names like Palm Springs. They come to us and ask, “We have a plan for a new compound. How can I make this a little bit more interesting, or less exclusive or… ”

B: …less terrible?

ON: Less terrible. So we’ll talk about sustainability. Let’s make this gated community more “green.” But the parameters are incredibly fixed — you couldn’t dare suggest the compound should be more socially or economically diverse.

Then, on the other hand, the government institutions would sometimes offer competitions, but these were equally implicated in this paradigm. The previous cabinet was pretty much composed of former businessmen or con men, so the policies of housing, infrastructure, and transportation were based on this ideology of privatization, selling our public land.

B: Would you say that it was a bad version of privatization, or just privatization?

ON: It was an extreme version. Privatization started in Egypt in the late Seventies, and the first initial transformation of state economic structure started with Sadat around 1978, but it was still kind of modest, not systematic. The neoliberal paradigm of social adjustment led by the IMF and the World Bank did not start until the late 1980s or early 1990s, and with privatization came corruption. So now the minister who is responsible for transportation is himself an owner of transportation companies…

B: So literally privatization.

ON: Exactly! And in the shape of clans and families forming a monopoly or cartel on housing. One cousin sells the land, and another cousin buys it; another builds it; another markets it. So 0.5 percent of the population controls 95 percent. It is a very crude, pre-1952 revolution way of doing things. And you could see it in the revival of a pre-revolution aesthetic, not only architecturally in the return of the neoclassical, but in other ways. Terms like pasha, lord, and prince were coming back. All signs of status were reflecting this: lines of trees, giant villas, big Roman pediments at the entrance. Even in soap operas and films, all the verbiage and lifestyles were reflecting this, the landed aristocracy. It was an omen.

B: When did you notice that, significantly?

ON: I think it started in the 1990s. From an architectural aesthetic, the 1980s was a time of Islamic revival. We had Hassan Fathy, a famous Egyptian architect in the Forties who started to rediscover Egyptian rural architecture and developed this language of domes and vaults. His approach was a cheaper way to build, more economic and sustainable, more community building. It was a return to rural roots of living as opposed to Western modes. Over time, Fathy’s attempt at low-income and community architecture was aestheticized, and what was left was the dome, the vault. That of course was at the same time when Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries were on the rise, so Islamic discourse made it some sort of designation.

B: Islamic postmodernism?

ON: But there is no irony or twist! They take it very seriously. It is not postmodern — they take it as real, not as sarcasm. For example, the slogan from one of the gated communities, called New Giza, reads, “Where Life Happens.”

In the 1990s it used to be called Beverly Hills. There was also Green Meadows, the British Countryside, Dreamland, Farm Hills. There is all this greenery with a real kind of Western, preferably Californian, connotation. It’s all very crude, really, almost laughable. Everything is desert, and then suddenly there are these green meadows. First there is a sign — a billboard of a young woman lying all alone, contemplating a man playing golf. It’s a caricature. When you’re driving, just pull over and stare at the billboards.

B: What do you think will happen to them? Are there developments that you think will never be finished?

ON: Yes, of course. The momentum had been very strong; even those who successfully finished a development started a new one simultaneously because the market was very, very hot. It is all about speculation rather than returns, like Dubai. I used to work on this project for the real estate developer SODIC; we had three complexes in progress. Because I worked there as an architect they had my name in their database, but of course I am not their target demographic. But the other day this young lady called and said, “My name is so-and-so from SODIC. We have special offers now.”

B: She was trying to sell?!

ON: I laughed. “Well, okay, but I’m not sure you know who I am.” And she says, “Yes, I know who you are. We have new terms because of the slow market, so we have an offer on the ten-year mortgage and we have a bit of flexibility in terms of interest and you can change it without penalty… ”

B: You wouldn’t want that though, would you?

ON: No, no, no, regardless of finances. But I think what’s happening is they have lowered the target group, so they are now targeting professionals, for example. The middle class as opposed to… They’re shifting the mark just to try to survive.

B: “Special revolution deal!” It’s the end of an era.

ON: Perhaps. It has a long history.

B: Tell us about it.

ON: Well, there are two main highways which leave Cairo: 6th of October, which goes to the airport, and the Ring Road, which goes to the Pyramids. Both run through government land, and both were planned as part of a new development program that goes back to the late 1970s. It was never realized, but 6th of October initially started as a government city like Ramadan, Sadat City, 15th of May, and so on. They built all the streets and infrastructure, and some of the districts. The idea was to ease the demographic pressure — it was designed to have a mixed social profile. You have the low-income area, the middle area, the special or privileged area, and an industrial area. But as of the 1980s, nothing had been built. By the 1990s, with the shift to this crude neoliberal paradigm, what happened was a deal was struck to sell these still undeveloped public lands to private investors so that they would initiate the development. This was extremely profitable, because those with government posts could sell the land extremely cheaply to those in their circle — and all the infrastructure was already in place and paid for with public funds.

So in the midto late 1990s, these private developers bought this huge tract of land, including Amer, Mubarak, Rasekh, and instead of mixed houses and industry, they built private gated communities. That was when the idea of the compound emerged — it was a new typology.

B: But what’s interesting is this same thing has happened in america as well. But it’s not something that is specific to a developing country. It’s just what neoliberalism seems to build.

ON: Neoliberalism is about state withdrawal. The Fordist model, the model of the 1950s or 1960s all over the world, is about states providing or regulating welfare. By the 1980s, a shift took place, first through Reagan and Thatcher. The shift meant basically that the state pulls out; instead of providing services, it subcontracts. So Egypt is no different. But in developing countries, state withdrawal means two things in terms of housing: private gated compounds, which I was talking about before, and slums — the rise of informal housing on the outskirts of the city.

In Cairo, along the Ring Road, you see this endless improvised redbrick housing. It constitutes up to seventy percent of the housing stock, so it’s not even a marginal form. Statistically speaking, this is the mainstream form of housing. And it is within these neighborhoods that the NGOs, mostly religious organizations, started to replace the state, providing schools, clinics, education. That was the main reason the religious organizations have gained a hold in these areas. The idea of fundamentalism derives from this paradigm.

B: So what about now? Do you see things moving forward?

ON: This is the difference between revolt and revolution — the revolution takes years and years. And what it means for architecture? It’s about a new legitimacy. I call it “building legitimacy.” Your constituency as an architect should be different; you should answer not to the project developer or the state, but to the communities. I think my own mode of practice will change, big time. What should now happen is less — we should not be concerned with aesthetics, color, or form, but about what kind of institutions we should be engaging with. For example, I think there should be some sort of local government for every neighborhood, with a council to decide what the neighborhood needs, and then they should hire the technical expertise to translate their visions. That we need a new system of government on the local level, not just a change in president or parliament. That would be the starting point for a new kind of practice, and the role of planned architecture should change accordingly. Not the other way around. To me, this question of legitimacy should start with the institution, not the form.

The other thing is the question of economy. People are so obsessed with the idea of regime change, but the key question that has not yet been addressed is the economy. Look at the productivity rate, the unemployment rate. Egypt is a very poor country — or at least it has very limited resources. It cannot just decide to shift back to a welfare state economy. We are no longer in the 1960s, we cannot live in isolation. The state has to be connected to a global system. Otherwise we will be isolated, besieged. That to me is the main challenge: how can we develop a just economic system, with growth and distribution, and yet be able to engage the rules that are set by the IMF and the World Bank? To me, that is the most challenging task of any future government. We have to find a model. I fear that a reform capitalist model is not going to work.

B: It’s not going to work?

ON: No. We don’t have so much oil, and even tourism is not enough to generate enough GDP to create employment. So you have to have a magic formula to engage in this kind of neoliberal paradigm globally and yet maintain — or create — a welfare system, internally. I don’t know how. And that is connected to the urban system. The city is a reflection of the state. The geography of injustice, of the informal housing, and the gated communities — these are all signs or reflections or manifestations of economic injustice. Unless we start from the economic basis, any changes are just going to be cosmetic. Yes, there will be some upgrading, beautification, revitalization, but the structure of the city is unjust. That’s reality. It is not necessarily segregated, but there is inconsistent distribution of resources to different groups.

B: Where do you think that gets done? Answering those questions?

ON: Economic process starts from policy makers. I mean, you have the mandates of revolution. You need to translate that into policies and programs to address the majority. I don’t know how they are going to do that. You could increase taxes and create employment, but that leads to a paradox, because if you do, you are going to discourage foreign investors, which you need. Now we have already arrested all of the big investors, so there is no money. We all see the problem, but it is not easy to solve. I think the way out is to start to think regionally. That was the Nasserist vision. You know, a country like Libya has the reverse of Egypt’s problem: they have a very small population and very rich resources. A country like Sudan has a lot of land that is not being used because they do not have a trained labor force. So through the creation of a regional body, perhaps, you can actually have a more integrated and sustainable economic environment.